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Changes are coming to the State Board of Education as half its members plan to depart 

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Changes are coming to the State Board of Education as half its members plan to depart 

Feb 20, 2024 | 7:36 pm ET
By Aaron Sanderford
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Changes are coming to the State Board of Education as half its members plan to depart聽
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The Nebraska Board of Education discusses which of its three finalists it should offer the job of education commissioner. (Aaron Sanderford/Nebraska Examiner)

LINCOLN — The decision of four incumbents not to seek re-election could tip the balance on the Nebraska Board of Education, although it’s too soon to tell which way.

Changes are coming to the State Board of Education as half its members plan to depart聽
Patsy Koch Johns, a member of the State Board of Education, speaks to the University of Nebraska Board of Regents. Dec. 1, 2023. (Zach Wendling/Nebraska Examiner)

Board members Patsy Koch Johns, Lisa Fricke, Patti Gubbels and Jacquelyn Morrison did not file to defend their seats this year on the eight-member board, which helps shape state education policy. 

Their departures come two years after increased public attention and pressure from conservative Nebraskans shifted the board’s political center to the right.

Kirk Penner of Aurora, whose 2021 board appointment started the rightward push on the officially nonpartisan board, said service on the state board is a higher-profile job now, with “a lot of scrutiny.”

In recent years, the board has drawn fire for briefly considering new health education standards that included sex education as well as discussing how schools might let more parents review and reject books available in school libraries.

“The environment on the State Board of Education is a lot different than when they initially ran for office,” Penner said of the four members opting out.

Political temperature rose

Koch Johns, who represents much of north Lincoln and Lancaster County, said she was ready to wind down after more than 50 years in education. She wants to get involved in other ways, she said.

Changes are coming to the State Board of Education as half its members plan to depart聽
The Nebraska Department of Education. (Aaron Sanderford/Nebraska Examiner)

She acknowledged that the tone of public feedback on education has become more aggressive in the last few years and said the changing political environment was a factor in her decision.

“It has been difficult for all of us, across the state, on state and local boards,” she said. “It’s been tough for teachers. … It wasn’t enjoyable.”

However, she said, people shouldn’t assume that she or any of the other incumbents are leaving because of pointed public input. 

“I’m pretty tough,” she said. “I can take it.”

Fricke, Gubbels and Morrison did not immediately return calls or messages seeking comment. Koch Johns and Fricke are serving their second four-year terms. Gubbels and Morrison are serving their first. 

Koch Johns and others have said external politics sometimes seep into the board’s discussions. In her early days on the board, she said, it was tough to tell the political affiliation of many board members. Today, she said, it is obvious.

Focus on issues

Board President Elizabeth Tegtmeier, who joined as part of a conservative push in 2022, said she is proud that board members have been able to focus on issues important to education rather than letting politics overpower their work.

Changes are coming to the State Board of Education as half its members plan to depart聽
Kirk Penner, a member of the State Board of Education, at left, listens to testimony during an Education Committee hearing in July 2023. (Zach Wendling/Nebraska Examiner)

She said the teacher shortage is not a partisan issue, nor is ensuring that special ed students are well served.

Board member Deb Neary of Omaha, a Democrat who was a key target of conservative critics of the board in 2022, agreed. She said she appreciates “the balance on the board” and how people put aside their partisan differences on key issues.

“We are not a rubber-stamp board,” Neary said. “We are able to focus on the issues that are SBOE [State Board of Education] related — and stay away from the culture war topics.” 

Several state board members have privately lamented the rising cost of campaigning for the unpaid job. Such races used to cost $20,000 to $50,000 and now require raising six figures to run and win. They say getting elected now requires more politics.

Longtime board observers said it’s unclear which factions might benefit most from the reshuffling. 

District 1 in Lincoln and 4 in Omaha lean left. District 2 in Sarpy County and south and District 3, home to Columbus and Norfolk, lean right. But the State Board of Education is deep enough down the ballot that predicting those races is difficult, observers said.

Many campaigning on the right continue emphasizing parents’ rights and banning or restricting books that discuss sex and specifically LGBTQ sex. Some on the political left and in the center are labeling such stances extremist.

Koch Johns said she wants to see more teachers and parents engaged in the political process. She said the political climate might make serving on the state board more difficult, but “the work is rewarding.”